Empathy and Schadenfreude

Friday, December 11, 2009

Empathy is the ability to look at another person, see their emotions and experience a sympathetic emotional response. It’s an ability present in humans and chimps, and perhaps some of the other equally intelligent animals out there. It’s what helps us care for and about those in need around us and rejoice in their success.

It’s generally considered to be a female trait, but I think it helps to define us as human beings. An uncaring perspective, relegated to simply reacting to the emotions of others without understanding them, can lead to a worldview unable to take that dimension of the human condition into consideration.

It’s easy to see how empathy could have helped our distant ancestors. With the ability to care about the suffering of others they were able to see a need for compassion. This mutual support would have allowed for closer knit communities and more caring for those most in need.

Some studies have found that people with conservative viewpoints are less likely to have fully developed senses of empathy. It can generally be seen in calls to war, the subjugation of others and attempts to force personal worldviews onto the lives of others. Rejection of the importance of the emotional component of human life can make for an inhumane person that fails to sway any but the most angry and bigoted of people.

On the opposite side of empathy is schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in the suffering of others. It’s often associated with a desire to see someone punished for perceived crimes. For instance: a working class man chuckling when his boss gets taken to jail for tax evasion. Studies have revealed that this feeling is much more prevalent in men than women. Whether that’s a cultural phenomenon or endemic to the human condition is hard to determine.

Possible evolutionary explanations for schadenfreude are that it helped encourage the punishment of those who acted against the interests of the community. A troublemaker would have been a big problem in early human groups, as survival was a main concern.

Do schadenfreude and a lack of empathy make for a lack of humanity? Perhaps not schadenfreude, since in a sense it holds us together in the desire to punish those who make life harder for all of us. A lack of empathy, however, seems to certainly make a person less humane, but less human? Perhaps denying a person’s humanity is a stance that in itself removes our own humanity. But that could just be my empathy talking.


IndyDina said...

Wow! Great post! Your idea here is complete; I don't need to add anything.

'Cept, dang, you Canadians are well educated! ;)

skwirl42 said...

Thanks. :) Although I don't know if *all* Canadians are well educated. Hehehe… I'm at the higher end of the curve.

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